Pandering at Patients’ Expense

On the day he lost the coveted endorsement of Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn called a news conference on the groomed grounds of the Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center and vowed to save the struggling hospital. What he really set out to rescue was his own reelection campaign. The act was desperate and shameful.

The week before, The Times reported that three more patients had died under questionable circumstances at the county-owned hospital, which lost national accreditation after a string of fatal medical errors last year. On Tuesday, the day after Hahn’s King/Drew love fest, The Times reported two additional deaths. One of them was the sixth case in 21 months in which a patient died while hooked up to monitors that did everything but hit nurses over the head to signal a patient’s failing vital signs.

You might think that any politician trying to win the support of African American voters would use a news conference to denounce the deaths of so many patients, most of them poor, virtually all black or Latino. But Hahn, like so many politicians before him, continues to defend the hospital and to insist that its very public failings are no worse than those of other hospitals, just more scrutinized by an overzealous (and implicitly racist) news media because it is a historically black institution.

It’s mind-boggling that anyone could still hold such a view after federal regulators, accreditors, consultants, auditors and, yes, this newspaper have documented years of mismanagement, malpractice suits, bogus workers’ compensation claims and nurses who ignore monitors or even disconnect alarms. But then, the dead don’t vote.

Although the community surrounding King/Drew is now more Latino than African American, the hospital born of the Watts riots remains a powerful black symbol, and blacks remain a solid voting bloc.

Hahn has won six citywide elections with black support, a legacy of his father, Kenneth Hahn, who as a Los Angeles County supervisor midwifed King/Drew. But early in his first term as mayor, the younger Hahn angered the black political establishment by replacing then-Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, an African American, with police reformer William J. Bratton. It was a gutsy move, though it cost him the endorsement of key black leaders.

Now a new Times poll shows Hahn 18 points behind challenger Antonio Villaraigosa, and fear of losing an election has cost him his spine. He is pandering to those who see King/Drew as a symbol of power, not protecting the patients who rely on its care.

Villaraigosa has done his share of pandering on King/Drew. Indeed, at this point, the county supervisors — at least four of the five — are among the few politicians willing to speak the unpopular truth about just how tenuous King/Drew’s survival is, though that comes after their years of denial helped create this disaster. Tough truths and tougher choices are needed to save even a scaled-down hospital. That is what leadership is about.